Not long after returning home from the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock, Oregon resident Ali Pullen was testifying before the Portland City Council in an effort to dump several large corporations from the city’s list of contractors and investment interests.
Pullen, who had traveled to Standing Rock with a delegation of people of color from Portland, specifically testified about Caterpillar, a major construction contractor for Dakota Access, and Wells Fargo, one of 17 banks financing a pipeline that activists are now risking life and limb to stop.
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“When investment decisions affect the drinking water of 17 million people, [the pipeline] will not only affect these vulnerable Native tribes, it will impact our local community,” Pullen said at the hearing on Thursday.
Divestment is not a new strategy; opponents of mountain top removal mining and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example, have targeted banks and contractors for years. Now the tactic of putting financial pressure on investors and profiteers is finding new life in the movement centered in Standing Rock, especially as activists who can’t make it to North Dakota look for ways to support the Water Protectors camped out there.
Thursday marked a national day of action in solidarity with Standing Rock, and protesters gathered outside the hearing in Portland and in many other cities to protest Wells Fargo, Chase and other banks that are tied to the pipeline. Across the country, people are answering the call to #DefundDAPL by closing their accounts with banks that support the pipeline. Activists in Portland want their city to send a message by doing the same.
Wells Fargo’s support for Dakota Access is not the only reason activists like Pullen want Portland to stop doing business with the bank. Wells Fargo is also one of several major banks that lend money to the nation’s two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic (the company formally known as Corrections Corporation of America). This financing allows the prison firms to expand and operate as special real estate trusts that enjoy massive tax breaks, according to the watchdog group In the Public Interest.
“By investing in Wells Fargo, along with other banks and Caterpillar, the city is giving its consent for incarceration, and for a corporate oil company to desecrate sacred Native burial grounds and use excessive police brutality on our First Nations People,” Pullen said last week.
Private prison firms have become the federal government’s go-to for building and operating jails for immigrants facing deportation in recent years, and activists say up to 1,000 people from Portland were incarcerated at an immigration jail run by GEO Group in Washington, where prisoners staged a hunger strike in 2014 to protest poor conditions and other human rights violations.
After Donald Trump won the presidential election on promises to crack down on immigrants, investors in GEO Group and CoreCivic watched their stock values soar. Financers like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase only stand to benefit if Trump makes good on his threats to expand deportation efforts.
Wells Fargo Divestment Spreads in Wake of Scandal
Portland is not the only place where Wells Fargo is in hot water. The company is facing multiple government probes in the wake of a scandal over 2 million of unauthorized customer accounts created by employees under intense pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals. In September, Wells Fargo agreed to a $185 million in fines in a settlement with regulators.
Labor and racial justice activists who have butted heads with Wells Fargo for years are riding the momentum of public outrage and pushing state and local governments across the country to stop doing business with the bank. They are already winning big victories across the country.
“The false accounts scandal is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Saqib Bhatti, director of the Refund America project and its divestment campaign targeting Wells Fargo.
Under pressure from activists and angry customers, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed a resolution that could nix Wells Fargo’s chances of extending its contract to provide the city’s banking service when it expires next year. Last month, Chicago’s City Council agreed to stop doing business with Wells Fargo for a full year, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich barred the bank from doing business with his state for a year.
Even Wells Fargo’s hometown of San Francisco is considering cutting ties with the bank.
“This [scandal] is just one thing that happened, and we are using this opportunity to bring attention to all the other issues we’ve been working on for so many years,” Bhatti said.
From private prisons and the Dakota Access pipeline to predatory lending and holding Wall Street accountable for the 2009 financial collapse, Bhatti said activists working on a variety of campaigns have found Wells Fargo to be a common culprit with a common set of victims.
“Racism is part and parcel to what [Wells Fargo] does, and we need to go at that directly,” Bhatti said.
In 2012, the Justice Department ordered Wells Fargo to pay $184 million in compensation to Black and Latinos homebuyers who were steered into subprime mortgages or paid higher fees and rates than whites. Bhatti said communities of color have been particularly hurt by the bank’s aggressive foreclosure policies, and Spanish-speaking workers felt especially targeted under the brutal sales requirements that lead to the false accounts scandal.
“It’s not just that its policies happen to have a disparate impact, [the bank] actually seeks out and targets Black and Brown comminutes for its worst behavior,” Bhatti said.
Media representatives for Wells Fargo did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout by the time this article was published, but the bank put out a statement last week saying it respects the differing opinions on the Dakota Access pipeline and hopes “all parties involved will work together to reach a peaceful resolution.” The company also said it supports “responsible energy development” such as wind and solar and has invested $52 billion in “environmentally sustainable businesses.”
Will Divestment Work?
Back in Portland, Wells Fargo is just one of nine companies on the city’s proposed “do-not-buy-list,” including Caterpillar, JP Morgan Chase and HSBC. The city has already barred itself from buying bonds with Walmart.
The list names several reasons to divest from each company — Caterpillar is also cited for providing armored tanks to the Israeli military, for example — but profiteering from private prisons and the Dakota Access pipeline is chief among them. If the Portland Council votes to add Wells Fargo and other banks to the list, it will be the first in the country to divest from financial institutions in part because they support the private prison industry.
For divestment activists in Portland, pulling public resources away from prison profiteers is part of a broader abolitionist campaign, according to Amanda Aguilar Shank, a local organizer with the racial justice group Enlace.
“We’re not targeting the private prison industry because private prisons are worse than public prisons, although I expect that to be true,” Shank said. “We’re targeting private prisons because they have an expansionist goal, and they have been able to achieve that goal [with the help of these banks].”
Shank said that it’s “incredibly important” that local officials step up and work with the refugees, immigrants and people of color who could be targeted for hate violence and deportation as the Trump administration prepares to take power. Portland is one of several “sanctuary cities” that offer some protections for undocumented immigrants, and divestment could expand the idea of what it means to provide sanctuary.
“Now is the time that we need to be able to build a larger concept of what it means to be a sanctuary city, and what it means to resist Trump’s xenophobic ideology,” Shank said.
Portland also offers a model for municipal divestment. In 2013, the Council created a citizen-led committee to draw up a do-not-buy list when it established a policy for socially responsible investing. The committee spent the past year screening companies that might be in violation of the several social concerns, including labor conditions and human rights.
So, will divestment force companies to change their behavior? As Truthout has reported, Indigenous activists in Norway have already convinced the country’s largest bank to pull its investments from the Dakota Access pipeline, but only time will tell if banks in the United States will do the same. Losing large clients like major cities certainly puts pressure on banks like Wells Fargo and calls public attention to their wrongdoings, but so far municipal divestment from Wells Fargo has been largely tied to the false accounts scandal.
Portland could set a big precedent when it votes on the do-not-buy list next month, although the councilman who originally introduced the socially responsible investment policy said last week that he did not intend to target banks with “bad customers.”
Indeed, critics of divestment point out that banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo are so big that they are involved in everything that is bad, plus a lot of things that are good. They touch every aspect of our lives. However, Bhatti said activists can and should use this to their advantage as they build power through divestment campaigns.
“If the target is big, that means all of us have a fight with the same person, and so we should use our collective leverage with everything we got,” Bhatti said.
This story has been updated.